In the next three posts, I want to take a little time to go over some basic things about guns and shooting, so hopefully we’re all on the same page going forward and no one is reading this blog like, “What the f is a slide? Like at the ball pit at Chuckie Cheese?”. First, a disclaimer– I’m definitely not an expert on guns. I’m more of an enthusiast, so I’m also hoping that these posts might spark some discussions in which I can learn some new things too. For our purposes, or what I envision them to be at this stage of the game, the basics entail a brief summary of the parts of a gun (don’t worry! I made a drawing!), safety rules and what to expect the first time you go to the range.
In this post I’m going to talk about the basic parts of a gun and a little bit on what the important ones do. Also, behold this diagram I drew just for you!
This is meant to be more of a generic gun, but it definitely has a little 1911 vibe. What can I say? I’m partial. The parts and placement will vary between makes and models of hand guns, but I figured at least when someone busts out the phrase, “slide lock lever” you’ll have some idea what they are talking about. And actually, the slide lock lever is a good place to start when talking about the parts of a gun because it’s going to be one of the first and most important controls you need to use on the gun. That’s because the top part of the gun, labeled “Slide” is the biggest moving part on the gun. It moves back, and then forward into it’s original position every time you fire the gun. That’s called the action. You can manually operate the slide by placing your hand over the rear sights, grabbing the slide serrations (those little grippy-looking slanted lines), and pulling towards your body. You then lock it into it’s open position by engaging the slide lock lever. Usually this is done when you are inspecting the chamber in order to clear a malfunction or to confirm that the gun isn’t loaded. We can get more into safety and clearing malfunctions in the next post.
Once you have the slide locked back, you’re going to want to drop the magazine out of the gun. Either you want to see that it’s empty to make sure its safe to handle, or you want to put amo in it. Most guns have a little magazine release button on the side of the frame. It’s usually not any fancier than my drawing makes it look. You just push that little button and the magazine drops out the bottom of the grip. You can catch it or let it hit the ground. Magazines are pretty hearty little things and you won’t break it by dropping it.
So the rounds go in the magazine, which is spring loaded. It took me a little practice to load up magazines and I’m still not like zombie-apocalypse-fast, but I can manage. The trick is to use the first cartridge to press down the spring in the magazine and then use every successive one to push down the round before it. Some magazines are double stack which means the rounds load in kind of left, right, left, right, zig-zag. Some magazines are single stack, so all the rounds are just sit right on top of each other. Either way the loading principle is the same. After it’s loaded, the magazine goes back in the bottom of the grip the same way you took it out, with the bullets facing forward. It probably won’t really go in any other way, but if you can remember that the bullets face the business end of the gun, there will be significantly less fumbling.
While we are on the subject of ammunition, a brief vocabulary overview: “cartridge” or “round” refers to the whole live piece of ammunition, whereas bullet really just refers to the top portion which is the actual projectile the flies out of the barrel of the gun and towards the target (hopefully). A shell is the bottom part of the cartridge and what gets ejected out of the side of the gun after each shot. It is the spent vessel that formerly held the charge (gun powder) that propelled the bullet out of the barrel.
A good thing to mention at this point is, if you lock the slide back, and then put a loaded magazine in the gun, when you release the slide, the action will strip the top round out of the magazine and place it into the chamber. This means your gun is now loaded and ready to fire. A couple of different mechanisms can come in to play now, depending on what you want to do, and what kind of gun you have. In my drawing you see a hammer at the back of the gun. This is part of the system that strikes the back of the round and causes the powder to ignite. If the hammer is back, as in my drawing, towards the back strap of the pistol, the gun is ready to fire or cocked. If it is down, against the back of the slide, the gun is de-cocked. On guns that are single action only, like a 1911, de-cocked means that you can’t fire the gun. Other guns are what’s called double action. This means that when the hammer is down, you can still fire the gun, but the trigger pull is heavier as a result of it both cocking and firing the gun in one motion. A third set-up is called double/single action and that’s because they can be fired both ways, cocked or de-cocked. Some people like to carry guns that are double action or double/single because the heavy trigger pull of double action makes accidental discharge much less likely.
A lot of guns with external hammers also have a safety switch. I didn’t include it on my drawing because they all look very different and are located differently depending on model and manufacturer, but mostly they are intuitive. On many guns, if the hammer is down, you can’t engage the safety because the gun is not ready to fire. When the hammer is cocked and the safety is on, the gun is “cocked and locked”, which is a popular way to carry a gun with an external hammer. On some guns you won’t see a hammer on the back, and that’s because they use a slightly different mechanism to strike the primer on the cartridge. These guns may or may not have a safety, and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask when handling a new firearm where the safety is or any of the controls, for that matter.
You won’t always see a beaver tail on the back of the gun either. A beaver tail is a feature on some guns that extends the back strap up in a wide curved paddle shape that protects your tender hand meats from getting tore up when the slide slams home. If you have a choice between shooting a gun with a beaver tail or one without, choose with. I have pinched the ever loving bejeezus out of my hand a couple of times and it is largely unpleasant. It also bears mentioning that you want to make sure you are holding the gun properly, like not in the path of the slide, so you don’t do worse than pinch yourself. That slide moves with a tremendous amount of force and it cares not at all for your frail little flesh sack. Ask an experienced shooter or gun range employee to show you an appropriate grip for the pistol you are shooting.
In fact, ask experienced shooters and range employees a lot of questions. Watch YouTube videos. Read instructional material, like the NRA literature. Then, go to the range and take a lesson. Some things you can learn on your own, but a lot of what you need to know about safely and effectively firing a pistol, you should learn from a person in real life. You will eventually develop your own preferences about stance and grip and gun type, but I wrote this post so that when you go to the range and someone says, “Here is the safety on this gun and here is your mag release” , you don’t have to give them the WTF stare. However, this is only the teensiest, tiniest tip of the iceberg. There is so much more, young Padawan. I hope you’re as excited as I am to delve into the sea of knowledge.
For next week, bring your game face and your safety pants.